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Shuttle's XPC SS51 barebones system

Good things come with AGP slots

ModelXPC SS51

SHUTTLE'S XPC LINE OF small form factor barebones PC kits has an infectious appeal. They're small, stylish, relatively quiet, brimming with ports, and the hardware inside is often fast enough to please most users. Most users just use their PCs to surf the web, do a little word processing, and maybe listen to a few MP3s. The enthusiast community, however, is quite a bit more demanding than most users. We're a hard bunch to please, and Shuttle's mini barebones systems have always lacked the crucial AGP expansion slot necessary for the screaming fast graphics performance we've come to expect from our systems.

Don't get me wrong. Shuttle's previous cubes make great little project boxes with a wide range of potential applications. However, being limited to either onboard graphics or a GeForce4 MX 420, currently the fastest widely available PCI graphics card, has narrowed that range to applications that don't require much of a 3D frame rate.

I can live with one 5 1/4" drive bay and the limited 3 1/2" bay options, because adding more drive bays would make the overall box bigger. I can live without the fastest chipset, too, and the fact that my beige CD-ROM drive might ruin the cube's aesthetics doesn't bother me that much. I can't, however, live with slow graphics, especially not in a box whose size begs for it to be used as a portable LAN gaming rig.

In my view, Shuttle's cubes have always been an AGP slot away from true greatness. So when I found out that Shuttle's latest cube, the SS51, would come with that elusive AGP slot, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. Really, giggling and everything.

Can AGP elevate the SS51 to greatness? Let's find out.

Distinguished lineage
Before we take a look at Shuttle's latest offering, it's worth remembering the SS51's lineage. Shuttle's barebones systems have come a long way since the original SV24 cube, which was based on an outdated Socket 370 platform and limited to a single PCI slot. The SV24 wasn't perfect, but it was fresh and interesting, and it certainly garnered a lot of attention. Soon after the SV24's release, Shuttle updated the platform to support Tualatin-based Pentium III processors and called the result the SV25.

Next, Shuttle set out to conquer the Pentium 4 platform with its SS50. The SS50 was a little larger than its predecessors, but it supported DDR SDRAM and the much newer Pentium 4 processor. For some reason, Shuttle decided that the cube needed a second PCI slot. Two PCI slots and no AGP? That qualifies as cruel, especially considering the scarcity of PCI graphics cards based on recent GPUs. There Shuttle was teasing us with a second, but largely useless, PCI slot.

Shuttle's next cube, the SS40G, was pretty exciting. For the first time they tackled an AMD platform, forcing the notoriously hot-running Athlon XP into a tiny package. The SS40G saw some big changes, including a fancy heat pipe/radiator cooling setup which managed to solve some problems the SS50 had with getting hot after periods of extended use. The cube's exterior also got a facelift, blending translucent plastic with the case's aluminum aesthetic. The translucent plastic wasn't nearly as cool as a polished aluminum or all-chrome finish could be, but it did add a nice bit of contrast to the SS40's aluminum exterior. One other notable addition, especially important to those using the SS40 as a media hub, was the inclusion of digital S/PDIF input and output ports. Still, there was no AGP slot, just a couple of PCI slots that I would wager go largely unused in a system with this many integrated peripherals.

I think we've all wanted Shuttle's cubes to have an AGP slot since we first saw the SV24. Now our wish has come true. Shuttle's barebones system concept has grown up, and it's finally got a spec sheet that's ready for enthusiasts.

The specs
The SS51 might be small, but it's packed with gobs of features.

CPU supportSocket 478-based Intel Pentium 4 CPUs
Form factorFlex ATX
ChipsetSiS 651/962L
North bridgeSiS 651
South bridgeSiS 962L
InterconnectSiS MuTIOL (1GB/s)
PCI slots1 32-bit/33MHz
AGP slots2X/4X AGP
AMR/CNR slotsnone
Memory2 184-pin DIMM sockets
Maximum of 2GB of PC1600/PC2100/2700 DDR SDRAM
Storage I/OFloppy disk
2 channels ATA/100
Legacy ports1 PS/2 keyboard, 1 PS/2 mouse, 2 serial
USB4 USB 2.0/1.1 ports (2 front, 2 rear)
VideoSiS 651 VGA
1 VGA, 1 S-Video, 1 DVI connector
AudioRealtek ALC650 6-channel audio
S/PDIF output (front) S/PDIF input (back)
EthernetRealtek 8100B 10/100
Firewire3 IEEE 1394 ports (1 front, 2 rear) via VIA VT6306
Bus speeds100-166MHz in 1MHz increments
MonitoringVoltage, fan status, and temperature monitoring

Shuttle really has covered all the bases here; the only thing that's really missing is a parallel port. There's a lot more to the SS51 than a paper spec sheet, though. Let's take a closer look.